What You Know May Hurt You

Whether quoted in a college lecture hall or printed on a bumper sticker, some maxims ring truer than others.  While the origin of the well-known adage, “Think Knowledge Is Expensive? Try Ignorance,” is likely rooted in either philosophy or politics, it’s certainly a fitting truism in the world of branding as well.

How many times have marketing directors rang up their agencies with urgent requests for new direct mail concepts before bothering to learn that their customers respond better to email?  How many “out-of-the-box” creative concepts nailed it in the conference room, then tanked in the real world with customers—customers who were never part of the planning process.  Simply put, many marketers fail to recognize the importance of customer research—a critical part of the marketing planning process—until it’s too late.

Let’s examine this conundrum in three parts we’ll call “Media” (how the information is disseminated), “Message” (the “creative” component of the information) and “Meaning” (what insight customers take to or from the message).

Most marketers start with Media—“We need a new outdoor campaign!”—as they engage their advertising agency.  Once the media vehicle is determined, the creative team is called in to develop the Message.  All too often, Meaning comes at the end of the process in the form of a “creative autopsy.” After discovering their killer campaign flatlined with the target, the advertising guys summon the research guys to investigate cause of death. A couple of focus groups later—and revelation! “Prospects hate the color green.”

Without knowing the specifics of any failed campaign, it’s fair to say most wind up dead on arrival because their creators had everything backwards. The fundamental workflow—Media, Message, Meaning—should have happened in reverse order.

The most successful brands begin their marketing process with genuine consumer insight gained via robust customer research.  Only with a firm understanding of customers’ hearts and minds (Meaning) can an agency create relevant and differentiating creative (Message). And only after a marketer has the contextual perspective of Meaning can he or she best know where to place a Message so consumers experience it in the right place at the right time (Media).

How do you gain the kind of consumer insight that sets a foundation for sustainable success?  By uncovering the true thoughts, feelings and desires of your customers.  Simply talking to them (through surveys, focus groups or other methods) is no longer enough.  Now more than ever, consumers know when they are being marketed to and how. Sure, survey respondents and focus group participants can tell you something, but what do their words mean? Can their words be trusted? Do their comments reflect the context of their daily lives and the complexities of behavior, culture and symbolic relationships?

For these reasons, qualitative research practices, especially that old stand-by, the focus group, must be complemented with more in-depth, investigative methodologies. Such methods include ethnography (observing customers in their natural environments), semiotics (uncovering the meanings of signs and symbols), semantics and linguistics (the nuances and meaning of words and language)—even cognitive psychology, proxemics (the meanings of place and space) and basic biology.  Only by starting with insightful customer research can agencies and their clients break the customer code, deliver meaningful messages to consumers and build sustainable brands.

As you begin planning your next major marketing initiative, check your course. Are you starting from an informed, customer-centered position? Or, are you starting at the wrong end of the path. Use customer knowledge as your marketing GPS and you’ll never make a wrong turn down the Meaning-Message-Media one-way street.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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